More than 200 people attended a community safety forum in Thunder Bay Tuesday night to address concerns raised by two recent incidents involving police and First Nations people.
Recently, city police officers were accused of stranding a First Nations student in the cold weather on the outskirts of town. And police are now investigating a sexual assault against a First Nations woman that is being called a possible hate crime.
Acting detective inspector Don Lewis told the crowd he couldn't get into details of these cases, but said the "abduction, sex-assault and, as it's reported, a hate-motivated crime" is being handled as a "major case" by police. Five criminal investigation officers are dedicated full-time to it.
Mayor Keith Hobbs admitted at the public meeting that his plan to make Thunder Bay a safer place has failed. He told the crowd that safety is something easier said than done.
"When I ran for mayor two years ago, I ran on a platform of safe communities and I'll tell you right now that plank has been an absolute failure," Hobbs said.
Hobbs, a former police officer, said he's still learning about the safety concerns of First Nations people who make up about 1 in 5 residents in Thunder Bay.
"We have 20,000 aboriginal people living in my city," he said. "Those are all my citizens and I want to protect them."
‘Garbage thown at them’
But many at the meeting said they aren't feeling protected.
More than a dozen families in remote communities chose not to send their children back to school in the city this semester, said Norma Kejick, executive director of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council, which runs Dennis Frankly Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay.
"[It’s] sad because some of those students have nowhere else to go to school and so some of those students are back home in their community doing nothing towards their education," she said.
Kejick said that the recent assaults and complaints are an escalation in a long history of bad experiences.
"Our students have said they've had garbage thrown at them while they wait for busses," she said. "The garbage and the swear words and the racist remarks are made while they're waiting for the bus right outside their own school."
After the meeting, non-Aboriginal university student AJ Haapa said that doesn't surprise him.
"I grew up here, born and raised," he said. "There's endemic racism here, there's no doubt about it. It's at the dinner table, it's in the classroom walls, it's like a racist matrix."
Haapa said he hoped the gathering will be a first step toward ending it.
But not everyone felt the two-hour meeting was a success.
People were still lined up at the microphones hoping to share their ideas for making Thunder Bay safer when the facilitators ended the meeting. Thunder Bay resident Paul Francis said everyone who wanted to speak should have been given time.
"You can't open up an event like this and just silence people out," he said. "So I'm very, very disappointed."
Francis said First Nations leaders are identified by their ability to listen to their communities — something he didn’t see at the meeting.
"There's a real issue of people being scared in the city and that wasn't addressed," he said.
Most people agreed that the meeting was only the beginning of a much-needed discussion about safety that cuts across cultures.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler led the push to hold the meeting and was happy to see so many people attend.
"I think that tonight was a great start," he said.
"I regret that not everyone had the opportunity to speak but we will make sure there are opportunities for them in the future."
Fiddler said he'll look at planning another meeting soon.